There is nothing worse than being in the locker room of a team that was just eliminated from the playoffs, and the air seems to get thicker every round closer to the Stanley Cup that team was. Monday night in Edmonton, the air inside that Golden Knights locker room must have felt pretty heavy as the Western Conference’s top seed was sent packing just short of a return to the Stanley Cup Final.
The final outcome of the series, 4-1 in favor of the Dallas Stars, will be seen as a bit of a surprise to most people. On paper the Golden Knights held pretty much every advantage. Goaltending? Check. Scoring ability? Check. Depth? Check. Defense? Close, but yes. As it turns out, there’s a good reason they don’t play the games on paper.
Dallas never actually looked like a team that was playing spectacular hockey, yet always seemed to have the upper hand on the scoreboard when the clock hit zeroes. Even when Vegas held a 2-0 lead in Game Five, the Stars just kept chugging along, doing what they do and ended up tying the game in regulation and winning in overtime. There never seemed to be panic or even concern on the bench. Head coach Rick Bowness had the Stars playing their game and biding their time until chances appeared.
It felt to me like Vegas never really got its legs going in this series. Several big names failed to find the scoresheet on a regular basis, and even the few players who did contribute in more than one game didn’t rise up in the moments when it mattered. I’m sure in the coming days and weeks we will hear what injuries were going around and some performances will be more understandable in that light. But for a team that was billed as being able to roll four lines and boasted scoring depth at the top of the NHL, it really didn’t materialize in any meaningful way when it counted.
Credit Dallas for controlling the neutral zone against the Golden Knights and really cramping their style. Vegas never really had a chance to use its speed as much as it wanted to generate scoring chances. The Stars made zone entries and puck retrieval difficult for the Golden Knights forwards, who had to take outside paths to where they wanted to go. In fact if you look at both Vegas goals in Game Five they both came off long stretch passes that caught the Dallas defense off guard. Attacking through the neutral zone and setting up shop in the offensive zone didn’t happen nearly as much as was needed. Puck retrievals, zone time, the cycle game and winning battles along the boards in the offensive zone just didn’t happen in this series.
The other thing I thought the Stars did a good job of defensively was not giving up the blue line to the Golden Knights. A few times in Game Two Vegas was able to push the defense back and increase the gap from the attacking forward because the Dallas D had to respect the Golden Knights’ speed. When that happened, it was easier to pull up and create or drive the net thanks to the extra time and space. But it didn’t happen often, and credit is due to the Stars for proper gap control and back check support.
Of course, the spotlight will be glaring on the lack of offensive production for Vegas in the series. Scoring eight goals in five games is simply not enough. Only scoring three goals in a game once (they won) in a league where three is the magic number really hurts. Max Pacioretty, Alex Tuch, Nate Schmidt and Jonathan Marchesault all failed to score in the series. No Golden Knights player scored more than once in five games. That’s an unacceptable level of production no matter how you slice it.
Defensively and in net, I find less fault with the Golden Knights especially when considering the lack of run support. Losing a game you only allow one goal against is an anomaly, but makes sense when you consider the previous paragraph. Vegas only allowed three goals against twice in the series but just couldn’t find enough offense to advance. Robin Lehner was solid, making several key saves but he also failed to steal a game for the Stars they way I could argue Anton Khudobin did for Dallas in Game Three.
Now the attention turns to the off-season questions of who stays and who goes, what happens in net, and how Vegas will be different when they take to the ice for training camp in December. Make sure you bookmark Vegas Hockey Now for all the coverage and analysis you crave.